Choi Ji-man hits Gerrit Cole like few others in Major League Baseball (MLB).
Choi, the South Korean first baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays, blasted a two-run homer off the New York Yankees' ace in Game 1 of their American League Division Series (ALDS) at Petco Park in San Diego on Monday (local time).
It was Choi's fourth career home run and 10th hit in 19 career at-bats against Cole, including postseasons. Choi also has 10 RBIs against the right-handed fireballer.
The ball left Choi's bat at 108.9 miles per hour and traveled 429 feet over left center. These teams will play their entire best-of-five series in San Diego as the neutral venue, with no traveling during the coronavirus pandemic.
Choi said afterward he doesn't have a specific answer as to why he has been so successful against Cole.
"He's a great pitcher. I just had the same approach at the plate, and I was able to stay calm and focus on each at-bat," he said in his postgame Zoom session. "He threw curveballs (earlier in that second at-bat) to keep me off balance but I was looking for a fastball. And I made good contact."
Despite Choi's heroics, the Rays dropped the opening game 9-3.
The Yankees torched the Rays' pitching for four home runs, including a grand slam by Giancarlo Stanton in the ninth.
During this past regular season, Choi had only three home runs, but two of them came against Cole. With the history of his success against one of MLB's top pitchers, Choi got the start in the cleanup spot in the first game.
Cole won the early battle, as Choi popped out to third baseman Gio Urshela to end the first inning.
But in the fourth inning with the Rays trailing 2-1, Choi drilled a 95.8 mph fastball on the outer part of the plate for a go-ahead, two-run shot.
The Rays' 3-2 lead was short-lived, however, as the Yankees responded with two solo homers in the top of the fifth against starter Blake Snell to take a 4-3 lead, and they put up a five-spot in the top of the ninth to win 9-3.
Choi came up in a big spot in the bottom of the fifth, with two outs and runners at the corners. Cole fell behind 2-0 and then, instead of dealing with Choi, intentionally walked him to load the bases and set up a force play at every base.
The decision paid off for Cole, as he struck out Manuel Margot to end the threat.
In his final plate appearance in the eighth, Choi grounded out to second against left-handed reliever Zach Britton. Choi finished the day 1-for-3 with that two-run home run and a walk.
Choi shrugged off the loss, saying, "Tomorrow is a new day."
"We will definitely have a different approach. We are still confident we are going to win," Choi said. "We have a confident group. Tomorrow, we are going to bounce back and see where it goes from there."
Game 2 will be at Petco Park at 5:10 p.m. Tuesday (local time), or 9:10 a.m. Wednesday in South Korea. (Yonhap)